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THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND
1996

Review © 2006 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Tony Sahara.

AUTHOR'S SITE

DIANA WYNNE JONES


The Tough Guide to Fantasyland takes its one joke — that it's a spoof of the "Rough Guide" series of guidebooks, done over as a glossary of fantasy tropes — and cudgels it to death long after the initial chuckles have worn out. Sure, it does have its value. If you're an aspiring writer, as Neil Gaiman points out in his blurb, this is an excellent one-stop shop for all of the clichés you want to avoid. I personally think it's optimistic of Neil to assume newbie writers will avoid them so much as pick and choose their favorites to include, much in the same way newbie gamers use the "Oh, what a cool card!" approach to assembling Magic decks.

The irony is that this book is actually something I'd praise a lot more if it were played straight, for exactly the aforementioned educational purpose. It might well save the lives of countless trees that would otherwise die to produce crates of tedious, hackneyed fantasy novels. But Jones, a writer whose experience in the fantasy publishing trenches makes her as qualified to produce a book such as this as anyone, wants to go the spoofage route. I think. There really isn't anything here half as rib-tickling as any given paragraph in a Pratchett novel. Case in point: here's the whole entry for "Dark Lord".

There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world. He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour. Generally he will attack you through MINIONS...of which he will have large numbers. When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black* (see COLOR CODING) and shadowy and probably not wholly human. He will make you feel very cold and small. Actually, when it comes down to it, that is probably all he will do, having almost certainly exhausted his other resources earlier on. You should be able to defeat him, with a little help from your COMPANIONS, without too much effort. However, the Rules state at this stage you will be exhausted yourself and possibly wounded by MAGIC. So be careful.

So there you go. Cute. Chuckle chuckle, tee hee. While it's actually a fine brief summation of just how overdue for retirement the Dark Lord character has become, the comedy content isn't exactly at rolling-in-the-aisles level, is it. It feels as forced as, well, any number of lousy fantasy plots, really. (Of course, if you're rolling in the aisles right now, how I envy you for being so easy to amuse.) This is basically representative of the other entries in the book. None is really any funnier than this, and some just seem like Jones made them up in a burst of whimsy. There's an entry for "Yogurt" for no good reason, which could easily be excused if it were as funny as Jones thinks it is.

This little tome first came out in 1996 in England, and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in the "Nonfiction" category, a fact that is funnier than anything in the whole book. This version has been somewhat revised for a fall 2006 U.S. re-release. Again, if you're a wannabe writer, go ahead and get it. There are lessons here for your own storytelling, should you choose to heed them. But if you're a reader looking for a laugh, anything by John Moore or that Terry guy will produce a higher volume of hilarity and a real story to boot.

Oh, yeah. One more — erm — dubious thing about this re-release that troubles me. The publisher this time is Penguin Firebird, an estimable paperback line of young adult fantasy. This makes me concerned about the wisdom of such entries as "Sacrifice", which includes the following:

The major and preferred form is of course the ritual killing of a human, preferably young, female, and beautiful.... The victim is roped down, ritually raped, then disembowelled.

This is YA material? Boy, times sure have changed. "Dark Lord Approved," indeed! I'm sure it'd be naive to think that dreams of Hermoine haven't sent scores of spotty adolescent Potterheads to playing with their wands. They don't call it fantasy for nothin'.


*Whoops. The implied racism here is, I'm sure, unintentional. But still stupidly careless.